If you’re assigned to cover the Winter NAMM show and have podiatric troubles, or have trouble faking your way through conversations on speaker ohm-loads and S/PDIF interfacing, or find scantily clad women hawking rock ‘n’ roll guitars to be offensive, you’re pretty much screwed. Lucky for me, my shoes were comfortable, my BS-ing skills were polished and I had no business checking out rock ‘n’ roll guitars this past January at the musical instrument manufacturers’ annual summit in Anaheim, Calif.
Winter NAMM is a place where everybody-from the kid who molds plectrums to the curve of your thumb, right on up to the folks that build big ‘n’ bright, Rolling Stones-tour-worthy lighting rigs-convene to show off their new gear to those who will sell it in stores-and to those who will push it in print.
Every Winter NAMM show is huge. It dwarfs its summer sibling, which is held in Nashville, by umpteens more square feet of show-floor and an energy level on par with that of a political convention. And every year some seriously famous names (read: Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul) patrol the same miles of red carpet as the instrument buyers, autograph hounds and lowly, nonfamous journalists. Still, even the stars can hardly take attention away from the wealth of new products showcased at NAMM.
While rock and pop are the bread and butter of Winter NAMM, more than a few instrument manufacturers keep jazz near and dear to their hearts. They are people who want to serve the jazz community. They are people who want their products covered by the mighty JazzTimes. I am happy to oblige.
Saxes, Trombones & Reeds
Never have I seen saxophones that looked and felt sturdier than the horns at the Stephanhöuser booth. The company is the up-and-comer of the sax-crafting lot, innovating the art with three patented design elements: a solid brass octave key mechanism, the use of screwless pins in the key rods (to maintain constant and uniform tension) and a one-piece bow made from tempered bell brass that increases resonance and strength. Stephanhöuser has a number of models in soprano, alto, tenor and baritone ranges. We’ll cover one or two in more depth in the near future.
The newly named Conn-Selmer company (which operates under the giant Steinway Musical Instruments umbrella) showcased its new King 2B professional trombones. They’re jazz models that offer forceful projection and improved upper-register tone and can be had with Sterling, rose brass or the traditional yellow brass bells. The 2102L trombone is the Jiggs Whigham signature model. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, you’re likely not a ‘bone head. Or perhaps you just don’t hang out often in Germany, where the trombonist lives and performs regularly. Whigham has played with plenty of recognizable names, however, most notably Stan Kenton, Count Basie and Mel Lewis-Thad Jones. His lightweight signature trombone has a .491-inch bore, a 7 3/8-inch bell and outer slides of nickel silver, and it’s especially good for playing leads. King also introduced the 2B+ trombone, a slightly more open version of the 2B recommended for use in big bands.
Reed-maker Vandoren experimented with the relationship between the tone-producing heart of a reed and its tip (the part responsible for vibration), and came up with the ZZ, a jazz-specific saxophone reed that artists Gary Foster and Frank Catalano use. Available for alto, tenor, and baritone, the ZZs help deliver a big tone with immediate response in free-blowing contexts, even up in the altissimo range.
Drums & Cymbals
People may sometimes forget that Remo makes not only drumheads but also the shells you put them on. The company reminds us of the fact with the Gold Crown drum set, a superbly built trap with centered tone that drummers Jeff Hamilton and Ed Thigpen are praising. The drums are the first to be made using Remo’s new, proprietary Advanced Acousticon process, which yields denser shells with a hardness and pitch that feels and sounds somewhere in between that of maple and birch.
Masterwork Cymbals had a series of dishes at the show that sound remarkably like old K. Zildjians-the very cymbals that Elvin, Max, Buddy, etc. used to shape the sound of jazz rhythm in the days of yore and the very ones that modern drummers with sturdy bank accounts use to give their timbre a vintage patina. The Turkish-made Masterworks are distributed in North America by Dunnett Classic drums, which also had a seriously nice titanium drum kit on display.
Another cymbal maker, the Avedis Zildjian Company, makes drumsticks as well. The company’s latest hot stick is the Anti-Vibe, which is partly hollowed out and stuffed with a supersecret rubber polymer that keeps the sticks from vibrating as you hit things-this is good. Zildjian also had some jazz cymbals to show off: a pair of warm, riveted left-side rides designed in part by Peter Erskine and a few K. Custom series cymbals bearing Dennis Chambers’ signature.
Maybe the neatest piece of drum gear was Latin Percussion’s Giovanni Series Compact Conga. It’s basically an 11-inch conga minus the wooden (or fiberglass) shell, and it resonates surprisingly well considering you can just connect it to a snare stand. Maybe it’s not for the serious “I’m the conga player in this band, that’s all I do” kind of musician, but for someone who simply wants to add the Latin flavor to a regular drum kit, it’s a perfect alternative to lugging a regular conga around or dealing with where to place the instrument on your rig.
Guitars & Effects
Walking into the Fender booth to see a Jimmy Bruno signature guitar with only six strings made me chuckle a bit-Bruno’s signature sound is largely due to his playing a seven-string archtop. But Benedetto, which is part of the Fender family along with Guild and now Gretsch guitars, is smart to produce the Bruno ax with six strings: the instruments will sell better that way. And actually, a seven-string model will be available soon, if that’s your thing. The Benedetto Bru-no on display, with a 2 1/2-inch deep body and equip-ped with an A-6 Benedetto pickup, played nicely during all 60 seconds I had my hands on it. It was a popular item.
As part of its Synchromatics line, Gretsch is bringing a number of hollow-body guitars to the market, a few of which might have special interest for jazzers looking for faster necks and slightly different tone. Models like the 3110, which comes in a beautiful tobacco burst, combine aspects of 1930s Gretsch archtop design and of early 1950s Gretsch electrics. They look sweet as hell, with bound, cat’s eye soundholes and single-coil DynaSonic pickups, and I’m sure we’ll review one of these guitars in the near future to fill you in on how they sound.
My first order of business at the Electro-Harmonix booth was to harass them about the fact that the company still hasn’t reissued its storied 16-Second Digital Delay-the pedal a young Bill Frisell used in the 1970s to loop his phrases and freak us out. There’s still no word on when EH will start producing that box again, but in the meantime the company has added a couple of tube-powered stompboxes to its line: the Black Finger compressor and the LPB 2ube stereo preamp. Both enhance the sound of anything plugged into them-guitars, bass, keyboards, you name it-with warmth and definition but remain quiet and transparent.
Yet another piece of signature gear was found at the Holland Amplifiers booth, though this time the name is Kenny Burrell. Burrell’s name is scrawled across the grill of the tube-powered combo, and it sounded the best of any new amp I heard at the show, providing smooth and detailed tone. That’s not to say that there weren’t other amps that sounded good. At Eastman Strings’ booth I played one of the company’s wonderful guitars through a solid-state UltraSound amplifier. I then went right downstairs to check out UltraSound’s own exhibit. I played through the company’s 30-watt model, and I was amazed at how much a nontube amp could sound like a Fender Twin. The fellow at UltraSound offered me a ridiculously good deal on the amp if I’d agree to buy one right then and there. I wish I had bought it.
Fishman has produced the revered BP-100 upright-acoustic-bass pickup since 1979. As valued as that pickup is by bassists who need an extra push on stage to be heard, the 21st-century update, called the Full Circle, will likely relegate most bassists’ BP-100s to backup duty. Pickup inventor Larry Fishman is a bassist himself, and he designed the Full Circle to resist feedback and to add as little coloration to the amplified sound as possible, bringing out the tone of the instrument and not the pickup’s electronics. The aluminum-encased pickup can be retrofitted to most instruments and features a voicing option that lets you dial in the response, the point being that the more control you have over a pickup, the closer you can get to the instrument’s true tone.
For the electric-bass player, SWR has brought forth a new preamp, the 10-pound, rack-mountable Mini Mo’. It features complete EQ control over bass, treble and low and high mids, plus a few onboard effects: chorus, overdrive and bass synth-all fully controllable. An accompanying footswitch, the Mo’ Control 2, lets gigging bassists manage the Mini Mo’s features on the fly.
I suppose the biggest deal at the show, keyboard-wise, was the news that Hammond’s MIDI-enabled recreation of the legendary B3 organ is now in production. Joey DeFrancesco played the so-dubbed New B3 with his trio at Steamer’s Café in Fullerton, Calif., during two shows during the course of NAMM and you should know this: It sounds just like a vintage B3, but it’s only about half as heavy.
There were other keyboards at the show that deserve the jazz community’s attention, too, like Generalmusic’s Promega2, which Herbie Hancock was seen enjoying. A stripped-down version of the older Promega3, a keyboard boasting twice the polyphony, it still creates the sounds of acoustic pianos, Rhodes, Wurlies and Clavs like so many other digital synths don’t-don’t do well, that is.
It’s not uncommon to see a large group of people milling about the Moog booth at NAMM. This is because Bob Moog is God and his synthesizers will never lose their cool. This time, folk were gathered around the new Minimoog Voyager, an analog keyboard synth with MIDI, patch memory and a classic wood casing that represents a return home for Moog, who has been busy producing effect filters and theremins lately.
Ribbon microphones are the fad these days, and for good reason: they sound smooth and true. In fact, Wayne Shorter’s saxophone on Footprints-Live! came to us through a ribbon, Royer Labs’ R-121. Royer’s latest, the R-122, ups the R-121’s sensitivity by 15 decibels, placing it on the level of a condenser and eliminating the need to channel it through a high-gain preamp. The R-122 is also the world’s first phantom-power friendly ribbon, plus it’s built to withstand SPLs greater than 135 dB, which makes it useful in nearly any application imaginable including drums, large horn sections and live events.
Blue’s Ball microphone is another world’s first: a phantom-powered dynamic mike. It’s also probably the first microphone you could play bocce with, not that you’d want to. The Ball’s phantom power circuit is applied at the mike’s output stage, balancing its acoustic balance, phase coherence and noise specification. It makes for a smooth and open sound you wouldn’t ever expect from a dynamic, which usually have a more closed sound and capture less detail than condensers, ribbons or PZM mikes. But just a like a regular dynamic, the Ball doesn’t flinch at high volume sources (maximum SPL: 146 decibels).
In jazz, where the subtleties in a singer’s voice are just as important as hitting the right notes, using a condenser microphone, which is highly sensitive, can make all the difference. A condenser’s strength can be a weakness as onstage, however, as it can feed back easily because it’s so sensitive. AKG’s C 900 condenser was designed with a cardioid polar pickup pattern optimized for high gain before feedback, bucking the problem. Jane Monheit uses one.Originally Published